1 John 1:1-2:2 New International Version (NIV)
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
There once was a man from Texas who was doing really well financially. He had inherited oil fields from his father, who had inherited them from his father, who inherited land from his father, who purchased acres and acres of empty land in the Lone Star State when he came to the United States from Germany in the late 19th century.
Having felt like he had earned himself a vacation, this Texas billionaire decided to go on a trip to his homeland and search for the family that his great-grandfather had left behind. So he does a little research and he finds the region that his great-grandfather came from, he finds the city, and he even finds out that his distant cousin is still living in the house where his great-grandfather was born. The Texas billionaire was on the next plane to der Deutschland.
He arrives and meets his cousin, a cheery man in lederhosen named Hans. The Texas billionaire asks Hans for the grand tour. He wants to see everything that his grandfather grew up knowing. Hans steps out of the house and says, “You see that tree stump? Our property starts there. You see that old tractor, that’s another border. And this old house, the very house our great-grandfather was born in, is the northern border of our property.”
The Texas billionaire is shocked at how little his great-grandfather had and how little his cousin has today and he decided that this was the time to show his relative just how successful he has been. So he tells his cousin Hans, “Back home I can get in my car and spend all day going to the north and not get to the end of my property. I can get in my car and spend all day long driving to the south and not get to the end of my property. I can get in my car and drive east or west spending all the day behind the wheel and not reach the end of my property.”
Hans looks at his Texas billionaire cousin and he says, “Yeah, I used to have a car that ran like that, too.”
Today we are starting a short series on the book of 1st John. And that joke which seems totally unrelated to the scripture that we just heard will hopefully make some sense as I get into today’s message, but for now just remember the scenario and we will come back to it in a bit.
I want to jump ahead to verses 5-7 and we will come back to verse four to close the message this morning. It is going to be one of those backward messages, though many of you would say that all of my sermons are a bit backwards. Verses 5-7 say, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
John is using the metaphor of light here to describe God and he contrasts light and darkness. In light, there is no darkness because darkness is the absence of light. I am sure I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining that to you all. I think that when John talks about walking in the light, he is talking about following Jesus, the perfect example of what it means to live the life that God intends for us to live. Jesus calls it the “abundant life” or “life in the fullest” in John 10:10. We can walk in the dark, not knowing God, not following Jesus, or we can walk in the light living the abundant life, life to its fullest.
This makes me think of Philosophy 101 as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. For this class we had one text book, Plato’s Republic. I don’t think that I appreciated that class as much 9 years ago as I would today. But the thing that I do remember is Plato’s allegory of “the cave.” And just a warning: we are getting into philosophical nerd territory here.
In this allegory, Plato tells the story of Socrates and Glaucon having a discussion about a hypothetical situation. I encourage you to put aside the fact that this is a terrible and unethical situation for the time being. Remember it is hypothetical.
Socrates describes people who are in a deep, dark cave where they have been prisoners their entire lives, never having seen the outside world. These people are bound tight, with their heads facing a wall, unable to look at the other people and even unable to see themselves. They can’t even see their own hands.
Behind these prisoners is a path with a partitioning screen that is about head-high. Behind the path is the only light source in the cave, a fire. People are walking up and down the path with various animal-shaped figures on sticks so that all the prisoners can see are the shadows of the figures, kind of like shadow puppets. Furthermore, because they are in a cave, the sounds that the people and the puppeteers make echo off the walls, so it sounds like the shadows on the wall are doing the talking and making the sounds.
Socrates then asks the question, Wouldn’t the prisoners think that the shadows are real? Glaucon says of course they would. They wouldn’t know any different. The shadows are all that they know. To the prisoners, the shadows are real; the shadows are true.
Socrates then asks, What if the people were untied and allowed to look behind them. Wouldn’t they be confused as to which was real? The shadows or the puppets? Of course there would be some confusion, but they would soon see the truth that they believed to be true is really caused by something else.
What then if the people were able to get out of the cave, into the sunlight, and look around? First they would need a significant amount of time for their eyes to adjust, but then they would start to see things as they really are. In the cave, they might have seen shadows of a horse, then a horse puppet. But now, they can truly see horses, running around. Before they had only seen shadows of things that resembled animals in the real world. Now, they see the world as it really is. (I’m paraphrasing Plato a lot, but you get the idea).
When John contrasts living in darkness and living in the light, which is God, I think of this allegory of the cave. If we do not know God, we are walking around, seeing shadows of things that really are, but they are shadows, nonetheless. They might seem true or real to us, but that is because it is all we have ever known. John is encouraging the people to come out of the darkness and into the light. To not only know God, but to follow Jesus.
If you aren’t a big fan of dead Greek philosophers who lived a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, maybe this next illustration will be more suited for you. It comes from the original book Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.
Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
So we have these images of people trapped in a cave, not able to see clearly the things of this world, never having experienced anything else. And we have this bear, bumping his head on each step as young Christopher Robin drags him down the stairs, wondering if there isn’t another way. Winnie the Pooh knows that there is some other way, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to really think about it before another step comes and bops him on the head.
In verse 4, John gives his reason for writing this letter, “We write this to make our joy complete.” The first thing I notice is the second person plural pronoun: we. We write this. John might actually be the person who physically put pen to paper, but it is a communal effort. These aren’t just his ideas. These ideas come from a group of believers discerning God’s desires for his people.
This is what we often call a communal hermeneutic. We don’t discern God’s will alone. Within the Mennonite church we encourage people to spend time reading scriptures, praying, meditating on things, and then coming together to discuss and discern God’s will. One person doesn’t have all authority to tell you what is right and what is wrong. Believe me, I have tried, and failed! J
We have all probably heard Matthew 18:20 (mis)quoted at some point in our lives. Jesus says that wherever two or there are gathered in his name, he is there as well. This passage is about discerning God’s will. If you read it in context, it is about restoring a sinning brother or sister to full fellowship in the church. So John is doing is writing on behalf of the community, inspired by God, to discuss God’s will.
And notice again in verse 4 that John says that they are writing these things to make “our joy complete.” But the rest of this chapter is about walking with Jesus, encouraging others to join in as disciples. John is saying that they are writing these things, encouraging others to follow Jesus as disciples, so that “our” joy might be complete. Not so that “your” joy might be complete.
We all have friends and/or family members that just can’t seem to get it together. Oh sure, maybe on the outside they seem to be doing okay. Like the Texas billionaire from my opening joke, they might have money, they might have land, they might never know physical hunger. But they hunger for something else. They hunger for love. They hunger for completeness. They hunger for something that they just can’t seem to put their finger on. So often they try to satisfy their hunger with something that does not satisfy them. Buying more land, building bigger houses, trading up to fancier cars. Sometimes they attempt to fill this hunger with drugs, alcohol, sex, or violence. All of these things can give us a high, give us a sense of completeness…for a little while. If they didn’t, people would learn that and stop trying. These things do fill that void; they do satisfy the hunger. But that hunger comes back. And the behaviors become more intense. We need more to achieve that same feeling of contentment. We need more money, more land, more drugs, more sex. And in that void, there is darkness.
Those who know the light know that only light can overcome darkness. We know that the only thing that can fill that void is God. Following Jesus can break that cycle of destructive behavior. I believe that is why John writes, encouraging his readers to follow Jesus, so that John and his community of believer’s joy might be complete. Because we cannot have complete joy knowing that our friends, loved ones, or even the random guy who lives down the street is living a destructive lifestyle of failed attempts to fill their emptiness. Only God, through Jesus can do that. And we must seek together to find God’s will.
Plato goes on in his allegory of the cave to discuss what would happen if the prisoners who had been released, gone above ground, and seen the world for what it really is where to go back into the cave. The first thing is that it becomes really hard to see in the cave. Once you have become used to walking around in the daylight, you have a lot of trouble seeing in the dark. But once you can see, if you were to find the puppets that were used to cast shadows on the wall, you wouldn’t be easily convinced that they are real, that they are true. Once you know that there is more than meets the eye, once you know that shadows are just shadows, you will never go back to believing that they are real.
I can hold a puppet in front of the projector in the church sanctuary and it will cast a shadow on the screen. But because the people are sitting at a point where they can see the projector, the puppet, and the screen, I am not going to be able to convince them that this is a real horse. Oh sure, you might be able to tell yourself that the horse is real, but you aren’t fooling anyone, even yourself.
John writes in verse 8-9, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Those of you that know me as a pastor know that I like to use big definitions for the word “sin.” Sin is missing the bulls-eye; it is anything that misses the perfection that Jesus lived out and proclaimed. Sin is failing to reflect the image of God and failing to recognize the image of God reflected in others. It is destructive and painful and it will never satisfy our deepest needs.
We have a choice. Unlike Winnie the Pooh, who had no other option than to be drug down the stairs with his head hitting each one on the way down, we know that there is a better way. And we are going to spend the next few weeks looking at that better way, looking at how we are called to live as followers of Jesus.
I want to close this morning with a thought that I heard from Shane Hipps’ Easter Sunday sermon. Shane mentioned how our culture is so obsessed with life after death. There are best-selling books about near death experiences and people that claim to have come back from the dead. But Hipps says that when Jesus came back from the dead, he didn’t sit around talking about how great life after death is. He didn’t describe the streets paved with gold or the heavenly choirs or the people that we will meet.
Those things are important and they are indeed something to look forward to. But the resurrected Jesus talks about healing the sick, proclaiming the gospel, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus talked about fishing and he ate. In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus tells Peter the kind of death that Peter will experience. And when Peter points at John and asks “Lord, what about him?” Jesus says in chapter 21 verse 22, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”
The focus of the resurrected Jesus is not that the people just need to bear with the fallen nature of this world until they die. The focus of Jesus is that this world matters. What we do with these bodies and this life matters. And Jesus invites us to follow him. Because once we have seen the light, we can’t go back to the darkness.
*I borrowed the opening joke and the Winnie-the-Pooh example from Peter Rollins’ Palm Sunday sermon at Revolution NYC Church.